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Fray Garcia Left Great Legacy
Article first published in Vol. 17, 1998.
By Patricia Ybarra with research contributed by Manuel H. Ramirez Jr.
Spanish Franciscans would eventually extended across the southern part of what is now the U.S. from the Atlantic to the Pacific, while French friars would establish missions in the north. While Franciscans had begun Christianizing the Indians in the 16th century in what is now Texas and New Mexico, one priest in particular would come to be known as the founder of El Paso.
In 1629, a young lay brother named Fray Garcia arrived with Fray Antonio de Arteaga and a group of other priests and laymen to reinforce mission efforts in the province of New Mexico. A modest and humble man, he was later ordained a Franciscan priest, becoming known as Fray Garcia de San Francisco. El Paso sculptor John Houser notes that his first name of Garcia may have been his father's surname, and San Francisco indicated his religious order.
His first obligation was to direct the Piro Indian Mission of Senecú, south of Socorro, New Mexico. During his stay, using his natural warmth and love, he provided for his new friends, teaching them farming techniques and developing beautiful gardens, complete with grapevines. The vineyard supplied sacramental wine not only for his mission but also those in surrounding areas.
After almost 30 years with the Piros, Fray Garcia was commissioned to build a mission in El Paso del Norte to serve the Manso, Suma and other Piro Indians. Fray Garcia had been in the south earlier in his career, attempting to Christianize the Mansos who had become hostile and threatened priests Garcia had left in charge.
The Mansos later traveled to Senecú to ask forgiveness of the missionaries. In 1659, Fray Garcia asked the Indians to help him build a mission.
Fray Garcia chose a site on a rocky hill by the bank of the Rio del Norte, now known as the Rio Grande, for his church. El Paso historian Cleofas Calleros says the building was only a hut made out of branches, straw and mud. It was first known as the Misión de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de La Villa de El Paso del Norte y de los Mansos. Fray Garcia celebrated mass for the Mansos and Piros in the little church on December 8, 1659. W. H. Timmons writes that Fray Garcia performed the first baptism and marriage in 1662 and the first funeral the following year.
Fray Garcia also introduced these Indians to agriculture, irrigation, raising of livestock and cultivation of grapes. Fray Garcia worked along with the Indians, tilling the soil, planting fruit trees, and making wine. The weather was warm in the region, and the soil fertile, resulting in plentiful harvests. Vegetables, rose gardens and flowers provided food for both the body and soul. In 1662, plans for a larger permanent church began.
The permanent mission took several years to build and featured pine beams or vigas carved with flower and pine come designs by Spanish artists and their Indian assistants. This mission contained many more rooms than were needed at the time because "someday they will be needed, and most probably will give refuge to someone," said Fray Garcia. He was to prove correct. In 1680, the mission provided shelter for Governor Otermin, Fray Ayeta and 370 other Spanish and Indian refugees of the Pueblo Revolt in New Mexico.
On January 15, 1668, thousands of Indians were present for the completion and dedication of the mission of Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe. Historian C. L. Sonnichsen says that over 100 Mansos were baptized during the service, and everyone celebrated with bonfires and fireworks. Today, the mission in downtown Juárez still ministers to Juarenses and El Pasoans alike.
Ken Flynn, author of "Historic El Paso," documents the extensive missionary work Fray Garcia conducted in this area, including the establishment of the mission of San Francisco de los Sumos in present day Fabens, Texas. After twelve hard years at the Guadalupe mission, Fray Garcia de San Francisco returned to the convent of Senucú, where he died on January 22, 1673, at the age of 70. A few years later, the Senucú mission was attacked by Apaches and destroyed, never to be rebuilt. During the destruction, Garcia's grave became unmarked and the exact location of his remains is unknown.
Unlike many of the Spanish explorers and priests, Fray Garcia was known for his patience, love and endurance in his work with the Southwestern Indians. He defended the Indians many times against civil authorities and appears to have truly reflected the best of Spanish attempts to convert Indians to Christianity.
For his accomplishments in the El Paso-Juárez area, Fray Garcia was honored as the first of the Twelve Travelers, a project intended to portray the history of the Southwest. On September 26, 1996, over 3,500 people attended the unveiling of a bronze statue of Garcia in Pioneer Plaza. The one and a half ton statue is 14 feet high, the tallest historical monument in Texas.
The imposing bronze is the work of John Houser, prominent El Paso artist, and son of Ivan Houser, who assisted with the carving of Mount Rushmore in South Dakota. The statue portrays Garcia wearing his Franciscan habit and sandals. A Guadalupe medallion hangs around his neck, with a crucifix and rosary located at his waist. There is a Manso Indian basket near his feet filled with mission grapes, representing the introduction of agriculture to the natives. The beam Fray Garcia holds is carved with flowers like the vigas of his mission.
Fray Garcia's contributions to this area are numerous. El Paso is still very much of an agriculture area, using irrigation to make desert land bloom. Since 1957, El Pasoans have enjoyed the rose garden at 1702 N. Copia, a flower Garcia cultivated. For generations, El Paso was known for its vineyards, and wine making is making a comeback in the Mesilla Valley, Deming, and other areas of New Mexico and Texas.
Because of the Spanish Franciscans and later the Jesuit priests, most of the Southwest is Roman Catholic, including many in the various Indians tribes still living here. Southwestern still worship at missions whose foundations are hundreds of years old. Fray Garcia is remembered today for his gentle demeanor and desire to teach rather than to control the natives in the New World.